After a long, hot summer, longer and warmer than usual, autumn has finally arrived in Istanbul. And I’ve got a confession to make: Although the tomatoes, cherries, apricots, figs and grapes Turkey offers in summer, I’ve already been looking forward to the arrival of autumn vegetables for some time.
But before they arrive, there is a period of vacuum where the summer fruit and veg are fading fast but we still await their replacements which will take us through autumn and winter. Yet late summer and early autumn is one of the most active times when it comes to food production in Turkey. Starting mid-August, this is the time for making the produce that will keep us going through the winter.
Preparation for winter
The peppers go first, both the regular, mild varieties and those that look like regular romano peppers but are actually slightly spicy, akin to a mild chili. Some are crushed and sundried until they have become a thick paste, a cupboard staple in the Turkish kitchen. They come in two varieties: mild (tatlı biber salçası) or slightly hot (acı biber salçası). Others are sundried until more or less completely dried before being crushed and turned into spices – pul biber, tatlı biber, isot biber (urfa pepper). Indeed, if you buy your spices fresh from the spice market these days you’ll find they aren’t even completely dry yet – that’s how fresh they are.
The difference in quality between traditionally made products and commercial varieties is so significant one would be forgiven for thinking they’re not even the same product.
Towards the end of August, the tomatoes follow suit and are turned into tomato paste, though some will also be skinned, chopped, cooked and salted to varying degrees before being sealed in glass jars to be stored for winter, the saltier varieties being saved for latest. And once the tomatoes are done, it’s time for pomegranates. The first pomegranates are still a little sour and perfect for making pomegranate molasses. The juices are squeezed out before being cooked until just the right consistency and intensity of flavour, with ladies with generations of built-up expertise tasting every half hour or so to determine the precise moment when the molasses is ready.
Of course, these days most Turks use pastes, spices and pomegranate molasses which have been mass produced in large factories. These products have almost certainly never been anywhere near sun rays or the expert taste buds of village ladies to determine the correct cooking time; machinery and algorithms have taken their place. But you can still get hold of high quality products made in the traditional way. The price is of course rather different – often several times those of commercial brands. But the difference in quality is so significant one would be forgiven for thinking they’re not even the same product.
But what about my local market in Balat?
The first autumn vegetables
As October arrives, the vacuum at the food markets begins to fill. The first sign of autumn at my local market was the pumpkin seller. He recognised me immediately from last year (I was probably one of his best customers), so I bought a small bag of readily sliced pumpkin which ended up being used in a delicious spicy tomato stew with pumpkin and borlotti beans. It was this year’s first full-on autumn meal in this house.
Since then, the pumpkin has gotten more than a few friends.
The cauliflower, a favourite of mine since I learned it should never be boiled, has finally arrived. For sure, it’s not cheap: A large cauliflower will set you back around 8 liras (EUR2.35). At the height of summer, the same money can buy you eight kilos of tomatoes, so cauliflower is still a luxury of sorts for many here. But if last year is any guide, cauliflower will become much more plentiful and cheaper over the coming weeks. Broccoli, although little used in Turkish cooking, has also arrived. But with a price tag even higher than cauliflower for a vegetable than doesn’t even fill you up, demand doesn’t seem to be very high at the moment.
Other veggies have been around if not very prevalent all summer, but are now in full in-season glory: celeriac, leek, cabbage. All of these are staples in the Turkish winter kitchen. Celeriac may be cooked with other root vegetables in a thick vegetable stock with plenty of dill (for some reason Turks don’t utilise the stalks). Cabbage leaves are stuffed with rice or meat (or both) to make lahana dolması. A similar traditional Norwegian dish supposedly has its origins in this Turkish classic – a Swedish king apparently took a liking to it during a visit in Turkey a few centuries ago and brought it into his palace kitchens, from where it spread to become a firm northern favourite.
Autumn is also the season for pickling. Everything and anything can be pickled (and it is, as the selection of any Turkish pickling shop will prove). But the time when September makes way for October appears to be a particularly popular time for pickling as a number of stalls appeared offering vegetables grown particularly to be pickled: pickling cucumbers, tiny chilis which the Turks only use for pickling. Yet others were selling jars to pickle in, in case you don’t have any at home.
In September, fish season begins in Turkey. The limitations on fishing in place over the summer are lifted and fishmongers abound with fresh fish during autumn. At the moment, mackerel of a variety much larger than I am used to from Norway seems to be quite popular – though plenty of other fish and seafood are also on offer.
A new season for fruits
While the staple veggies of the Turkish kitchen are always bountiful irrespective of the time of year (if not always equally tasty), the seasonal change on the fruit stands is much more dramatic. The summer fruits have already all but disappeared, with the melons and late summer grapes being the last holdouts. These days, it’s all about the autumn fruits, familiar also to those from further north: Apples. Pears. Plums. The first mandarines have arrived, green skinned and a little sour (but surprisingly tasty). In a little while, sweeter versions will arrive and, not least, oranges – my favourite.
But most of all I’ve been longing for the jewel among them all: the pomegranate. In much of the world it can be bought all year around, but it does have a season. And that season has just begun. Over the coming months, pomegranates are juicy, sweet and at their very best. So don’t be surprised to see a few scatterings of bright red on these pages in the months ahead.